Agents spy on fires

Computer scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have created software agents that can navigate a robot safely through a fire and then replicate themselves.

The engineers are using wireless sensor networks that employ software agents that so far have been able to navigate the robot and spot a simulated fire by seeking out heat. Once the agent locates the fire, it clones itself, creating a ring of software around the fire.

A ‘fireman’ can then communicate with this multifaceted agent through a PDA and learn where the fire is and how intense it is. Should the fire expand, the agents clone again and maintain the ring.

Agents are specialised pieces of code that are self-contained and mobile. Wireless sensor networks are made up of tiny computers that can fit in the palm of a hand. They can run on simple AA batteries, sport an antenna and a sensor with the specialised duty of sensing the environment; temperature, magnetism, sound, and humidity, for instance.

Gruia-Catalin Roman, Professor of Computer Science, envisioned a new kind of software architecture to support applications targeted to the sensor network environment. Chenyang Lu, assistant professor of computer science, engineering doctoral student Chien-Liang Fok and Roman developed middleware called Agilla, which enables agents to move across the sensor network and between sensor networks connected via the Internet ,and to clone themselves, forming complex communities of cooperating agents.

This approach to the development of sensor network applications is flexible, permitting multiple applications to co-exist over the same basic hardware in response to changing needs.

Roman believes that wireless sensor networks are poised to explode upon the world stage, similar to the way that the internet took off after the creation of the world wide web.

‘What researchers are banking on is that sensor networks will be so cheap to make that they can be employed on a very large scale,’ said Roman, who directs Washington University’s Mobile Computing Laboratory. ‘This way you can spread hundreds and thousands of them around, gathering data and communicating.’

One potential application could be a farmer wanting to get soil data over hundreds of hectares with slightly varying soil types. He could send a software agent with Ph sensing capabilities to a particular sensor network then have the Ph agent clone itself and gather the data over hundreds of acres, then transfer itself onto another sensor network on the Internet and send its data back to the farmer’s office.